Nick Kokonas on founding Alinea Group with Grant Achatz

As part of our series of interviews with the co-founders of some of the world's top restaurants, Nick Kokonas talks about the vital ingredients in his partnership with Grant Achatz

I met Grant at Trio restaurant in Evanston, Illinois. He was the executive chef after leaving The French Laundry. I became completely taken with what he was doing there. He was this young really driven person who in many ways reminded me of myself but in a totally different career and with a different focus.

I had spent most of my 20s and early 30s as a derivatives trader, having started my own firm when I was 26. In 2002 I retired from it and spent six months doing nothing because I was burnt out and then I started working for another firm.

Over a year I became convinced that Grant was one of the best people in the world at what he did and no one knew it. While I was a trader I’d invested in some technology companies and acted as an adviser to them. I knew how to start a business, how to raise money, but very little about the restaurant business.

When he presented me with his business plan in 2004 I told him that if we were going to be partners we’d have to be friends. That was very odd to him – he said: “I’m not really friends with the people who work with me.” I replied: “It’s different, you have to have a lot of trust and we are going to be business partners not employees.” I invited him to my house after talking to him once at the restaurant and a year later we opened Alinea.

I had worked with enough talented people to recognise somebody who is driven. Ultimately I had no idea whether he’d be a good business partner or not. I just felt he’d be successful.

I personally committed $500,000 to the project and quit work, which everybody thought was crazy. Raising the money was not hard. I had a lot of contacts I had made money for previously. The hardest part was dealing with somebody’s dream – the dream they’d had from when they were a kid.

A couple of early articles called me his patron, like we were living in the 17th century. I make my living off this. Grant and I are equal partners. We have five restaurants and 300 employees. We have a responsibility to ourselves and to the employees and their families. It has to run well as a business. I also have a software firm Tock that has come out of the restaurant business. It has 34 employees and we just raised $7.5m last year.

Grant was given six months to live nearly a decade ago. It is horrific to see someone go through that, especially someone who is only 34 years old and perfectly healthy by every measure. We had just been named the best restaurant in America by Gourmet magazine. I was in the doctor’s office when he was given the news that they would have to remove his jaw and his tongue and he’d still only live six months. I was instrumental in finding the clinical trial that ended up saving his life and his taste. It was a really horrific year that put a lot of things in perspective. At the time I never thought there would be another restaurant and I figured that I would be out of the restaurant business because I couldn’t run Alinea without Grant Achatz being there.

Today I spend 70% of my time on Tock and he spends 70% of his time on Alinea and then together we’ll work on Next, Aviary and Roister and all the projects we have coming up. He still is first and foremost a cook; a lot of chefs transition more to a figurehead role and he hasn’t done that. When he is in Chicago he is behind the cutting board 12 hours a day.

A partnership needs mutual respect. I have to realise he runs the Alinea kitchen and knows it better than I ever could. I defer to his judgement, even if I disagree. Most of the time that is the right thing to do. There are things, such as pricing or marketing, that he’ll disagree with. You have to have trust and mutual respect – once you have those two things you are good.

Tina Nielsen

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